Thursday 20 August 2020

pieces from my thesis #1: the introduction

The previous couple of blogs, the land of milk and honey and the origin of grain agriculture: some thoughts, were written by the brewer with me doing the editing. I must admit that I couldn't resist adding a little bit of archaeological detail here and there. His theme was the origin of grain agriculture in the ancient Near East and Levant in the epi Palaeolithic over twenty thousand years ago. How did these hunter gatherers of the Fertile Crescent learn how to make malt? What happened?

The idea that they were eating the green and unripe grain first and that they gradually learned how to process the ripe grains into malt and malt sugars is his idea. Not mine. It's a new aspect to our investigation of how the art and craft of making malt and ale from the grain began.

I submitted my M.Phil thesis "Barley, Malt and Ale in the Neolithic" to the University of Manchester in 1999. It was published in 2004, by invitation, as a BAR (British Archaeological Report S1213) and is now out of print. I've heard that the BAR publishing people are in the process of reprinting some of the old ones, mine included. I look forward to that. 

We stand on the shoulders of giants. Here's some of the inspiration for my research: the Braidwood "Bread/Beer debate in the 1950s and his team's extensive excavations in the hilly flanks of the Zagros mountains. Also, the excellent paper on 'Bread and Beer: the early use of cereals in the human diet' by Katz and Voigt (1986) and an article published in Archaeology in 1991 by Katz and Maytag "Brewing an Ancient Beer". Delwen Samuel's recreation of an ancient Egyptian beer made the news in 1996 and this was another reason why I began investigating the topic of ancient beer brewing techniques. 

I particularly like John Tyndall's investigations and remarks on fermentation and the brewing process. His work continued the research of Louis Pasteur. The explanations of the biochemistry of the malting and brewing processes by Dave Line were invaluable.

Sometimes people tell me that I should write a book. I already have. I've also been told that many people only read the introduction and the conclusion of academic publications. So here, for your interest and enjoyment, is something I wrote earlier:


“Our prehistoric fathers may have been savages, but they were clever and observant ones ... the art and practice of the brewer are founded on empirical observation ... the brewer learnt from long experience the conditions not the reasons for success”
John Tyndall, extracts from his speech on Fermentation  Glasgow Science Lectures Association
October 19th 1876

Grain in prehistoric diet

The preparation and consumption of food and drink are important aspects of prehistory that can provide a valuable insight into the daily lives of people in past societies. The introduction of the cultivation of grain in the Near East and the spread of the agricultural lifestyle across Europe and into the British Isles was a great change in the lives and habits of Mesolithic people. It is one of the most important changes to have occurred in prehistory. After millennia of subsistence activities based on hunting, gathering and fishing people began to cultivate and therefore to have control over a variety of crops, including wheat and barley. They also began to domesticate animals. Much has been written of this so-called “Neolithic Revolution”, that is, the period of change from gathering, hunting and fishing to that of farming and herding. It was a change of lifestyle that occurred at different times in different parts of the world, but what was it that made people choose to cultivate wheat and barley, in particular?

          Cereal grains are a major source of carbohydrate in the human diet, being useful for making porridge, bread and flour. They are also unique as a potential source of malt and malt sugars that can be fermented into beer or ale. With a minimum of simple equipment, such as containers, water and heat, it is possible to trick the barley into digesting itself into sugars. This aspect of grain processing has been overlooked in much of the archaeological literature relating to the transition from Mesolithic to Neolithic.
           Brewing in the 21st century has become a global, multi-million pound technological business, with large breweries producing billions of gallons of beer annually. Many of these large breweries whose names are so familiar today such as Bass, Worthington, Younger and Guinness have only been in existence since the middle of the 18th Century. Prior to this quite recent industrialisation malt, beer and ale were manufactured either domestically or locally on a small scale.

The techniques of brewing small amounts of beer from malted grain have become largely neglected and the skill of domestic brewing is no longer a part of most peoples’ daily experience. This thesis, based upon the biochemistry of malting and brewing and upon small-scale domestic brewing methods (Line 1980) proposes that Mesolithic cultures were interested in making particular products from the grain, that is, sweet malts and ale and that this was a major factor in the decision to selectively cultivate grain. 

The ‘bread or beer’ debate
             Robert Braidwood of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (1953) first posed the question ‘Did man once live by beer alone?’ and this debate still continues today. Solomon Katz (1986, 1991) has coined the phrase ‘biocultural evolution’ and he argues for the importance of the transference of specialised food processing techniques to subsequent generations. Certain processing activities, such as brewing, become enshrined in ritual. Brian Hayden (1996) agrees with Katz and Voigt that grain was first domesticated to produce ale for consumption at feasts and at other special occasions. However, he notes the difficulty of finding direct archaeological evidence for early farming techniques and such grain processing activity as brewing (Hayden 1990). 

Most recently Alexander Joffe (1998:297) has proposed “the production, exchange and consumption of alcoholic beverages form a significant element and regularity in the emergence of complex, hierarchically organised societies, along with the restructuring of labour and gender relations.” Although these arguments are in the context of early Neolithic cultures in the Near East, the Levant and Egypt, they are equally as relevant to grain cultivation and processing across Europe and in the British Isles during the Neolithic.

Brewing in history and prehistory
           Both the manufacture and the consumption of a wide range of alcoholic beverages are understood to have been important aspects of social, economic, religious and ritual life in Iron Age Europe (Dietler 1989), in Viking cultures and in early medieval Europe (Woolf & Eldridge 1994, Davidson 1998). Drinking horns and a huge bronze cauldron that contained the remnants of mead was found in a rich ‘princely’ grave at Hochdorf, Germany, dated to the 1st millennium BC (Biel 1996). A large quantity of carbonised malt, accidentally burnt as it was being kilned, was found at Eberdingen-Hochdorf (Stika 1996). Malt is the primary ingredient for beer or ale.
The earliest written references to ale being made in the British Isles can be found in the Vindolanda tablets, dated to the early 1st millennium AD. Roman soldiers recorded their purchases of barley ale made by the local tribes. Pliny refers to the Gallic tribes of Northern Europe making “intoxicating drinks from corn steeped in water...that are capable of being kept until they have attained a considerable age” (Pliny XIV Ch 29). There are also many references to the manufacture and consumption of ale and mead in the myths, legends and skaldic verse of the Viking Age in northern Europe. 

 Ale and mead were consumed on many occasions, for example at religious feasts and festivals, at funerals, in drinking competitions and before the men departed to sea in the spring (Gayre 1948:45, Davidson 1988:11,12). Women were usually responsible for the manufacture of alcoholic drinks in the societies cited above and there were close associations between the consumption of ale and the worship of deities (Dietler 1996, Joffe 1998, Davidson 1988). Ale is manufactured from malt, with herbs added for flavour and preservation. Mead is fermented honey and water with similar flavourings and preservatives as those used in the brewing of ale, such as Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). Honey was frequently added to the malt and so it is difficult to be clear as to the precise nature of the ‘ale’ and ‘mead’ referred to in ancient texts, myths and legends.
           There is convincing evidence for the manufacture of both ale and mead during the Bronze Age in Europe and in the British Isles. Organic residues within a beaker accompanying a female burial in a stone-lined cist at North Mains, Strathallan, Fife, were analysed and found to consist of cereal residues and Meadowsweet pollen. They were dated to c1540 BC (Barclay et al 1983). The excavators interpreted this as being the probable remains of a fermented cereal-based drink. At Ashgrove, Fife, Scotland, a beaker containing significant quantities of Lime Flower (Tilia cordata) and Meadowsweet pollen was discovered, again in a stone-lined cist accompanying a burial (Dickson 1978). The contents of the beaker were probably mead rather than ale. Vessels made of birch bark have been found at Egtved and at other Danish bog burial sites. Analysis of the contents indicates the “debris of wheat grains, leaves of bog myrtle (Myrica gale) and fruits of cranberry” (Dickson 1978:111). Bog myrtle was an additive used regularly as a preservative in the manufacture of ale prior to the introduction of hops in the late Middle Ages (Vencl 1994, Bennett 1996).

Neolithic Britain

         In recent years organic residues that might indicate the manufacture of alcoholic drinks have been found on Neolithic pottery assemblages at ritual and domestic sites within the British Isles. Residues on sherds of Grimston-Lyles pottery and Grooved Ware from pits at Machrie Moor, Arran, were analysed and found to contain cereal pollen together with macro plant remains. These were interpreted as the probable remains of a mead-type drink (Haggerty 1991:91). 

Cereal based residues were found on sherds of large Grooved Ware vessels that had been buried in pits situated close by a rectangular timber structure at a Neolithic and Bronze Age ceremonial site at Balfarg/Balbirnie, Tayside. Pollen from plants including Meadowsweet, Henbane, Deadly Nightshade, Cabbage and Mustards were noted in these residues, an interesting mixture of additives perhaps indicating some kind of fermented mead/ale type brew with special properties (Moffatt in Barclay et al 1993). At the Neolithic village at Barnhouse, Orkney, barley residues have been identified on some of the Grooved Ware vessels (Jones 2000). Scientific analysis, specifically Gas Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry, has indicated the presence of ‘unidentified sugars’ within the fabric of some of these vessels. These sugars might be maltose. 

Thousands of charred cereal grains were found at the site of a large timber hall at Balbridie, Kincardine, dated to the early 4th millennium BC (Fairweather & Ralston 1993). Charred grain was also found at the site of a rectangular timber building at Lismore Fields, Buxton (Garton 1987). These finds and the cereal based residues described above are an indication of grain processing, perhaps for the manufacture of malts and ale, during the early Neolithic in the British Isles. 

          The possibility that grain processing activities during the early Neolithic of the British Isles included malting, mashing and fermentation should be considered and further investigated. Ian Hodder (1997:695) has argued for a destabilisation of ‘taken-for-granted’ assumptions in the interpretation of archaeological data and for the need to look at material culture assemblages as a complete whole. This multidisciplinary research and the subsequent interpretation of Neolithic grain processing techniques take this approach.

         Brewing is “one of the oldest biotechnological processes of all” (Kretschmer 1996) requiring skill as well as specialised knowledge. Each stage of the process requires very specific and different conditions. In prehistory, the transformation of grain into malts and ale was very likely to have been an important social, symbolic and economic activity, as well as being a specialised and skilled craft that was passed on from one generation to the next. Malting, mashing and brewing have a great potential for apprenticeships, for the creation of social hierarchies and status and for the possession of secret or specialised knowledge. These grain processing activities may also have been extremely significant in terms of both ritual and social behaviour.
Andrew Sherratt has investigated and discussed the possibilities that drugs, such as cannabis and opium poppy seeds, were consumed in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, perhaps as ritual or specialist activities (Sherratt 1991, 1995, 1996). Ale is also an intoxicant and a great deal of evidence exists for its manufacture and consumption during the Neolithic. There is also some tentative evidence for the ale to have been enhanced, at times, with psychoactive drugs such as Henbane and Deadly Nightshade although there is some contention and debate surrounding this issue (Long et al 1999). Whether or not alcoholic brews were enhanced with such additives is difficult to prove. 

Malting and brewing in prehistory

In order to recognise the extant archaeological evidence for malting, mashing and fermentation it is helpful to understand the basics of the biochemistry as well as the methods and techniques of grain processing for malt sugars and ale. Chapter One examines the specific craft skills of the maltster and the brewer. Chapter Two examines some of the traditional and ancient use of herbal additives that preserve, flavour or strengthen the ale. The archaeological evidence for malting, mashing and brewing activity in the Levant, in the Near East and in Egypt is assessed in Chapter Three. Chapter Four assesses this evidence with respect to the European early Neolithic and Chapter Five examines the stone buildings of Neolithic Orkney in terms of grain storage and processing activities. Chapter Six investigates whether the Grooved Ware Culture of mainland Britain had a suitable material culture to make malt and ale from the barley grain that they grew. 

         Research for this thesis initially began with the Bronze Age of the British Isles. The original intention was to investigate the manufacturing techniques of Bronze Age brewers. However, barley has been cultivated in Britain since the early 4th millennium BC (Ashmore 1996). The focus of research soon turned to the Neolithic of the British Isles. In order to place British Neolithic grain cultivation and processing techniques into context it was necessary to look at the earliest development of cereal cultivation in the Near East, the Levant and Europe. The remit of this thesis has changed considerably as it has developed.

         The Neolithic extends from the 9th/8th millennia BC in the Levant and Near East to the 4th/3rd millennia BC in the British Isles. This thesis covers a wide geographical area and an extensive timescale. It has not been possible to investigate every area in detail. Therefore selective sites have been chosen for analysis. This is an initial investigation into the possibilities for malting, mashing and brewing during the Neolithic. 

Ashmore, P. 1996 Neolithic and Bronze Age Scotland Historic Scotland, Batsford

Barclay, G. et al 1983 Sites of the 3rd Millennium BC to the 1st Millennium AD at North Mains, Strathallan, Perthshire Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Volume 113, 122-282
Bennett, J. 1996 Ale Beer and Brewsters in England: Womens's work in a changing world, 1300. Oxford University Press
Biel, von J. 1996 Experiment Hochdorf:Keltische Hanwerkskunst Wiederbeleb herausgegeben. Wais & Partner. Stuttgart
Braidwood, R. 1953 Did man once live by bread alone? American Anthropologist 55, 515-526

Davidson, H. 1998 Roles of the Northern Goddess. Routledge
Dickson, J. 1978 Bronze Age Mead Antiquity 52, 108-112
Dietler, M. 1989 Driven by Drink: the role of drinking in the political economy and the case of early Iron Age France Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 9, 352-406

Fairweather, A. & Ralston, I. 1993 The Neolithic timber hall at Balbridie, Grampion region, Scotland: a preliminary note on dating and macrofossils Antiquity 67 313-323

Garton, D. Buxton Current Archaeology 9.8 No 103
Gayre, G. 1948 Wassail! in Mazers of Mead Philimore and Co Ltd

Haggerty, A. 1991 Machrie Moor, Arran: recent excavations of two stone circles. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries Volume 121, 51-94.
Hayden, B. 1990 Nimrods, Piscators, Pluckers and Planters: The Emergence of Food Production. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 9, 31-69
Hayden, B. 1996 Feasting in prehistoric and traditional societies. In Weissner, P. and Schiefenhovel, W. (eds) Food and the status quest: an interdiscpliary perspective. Berghan Books.
Hodder 1997 Always momentary, fluid and flexible: towards a reflexive excavation methology. Antiquity 71,691-700

Joffe, A. 1998 Alcohol and Social Complexity in Ancient Western Asia. Current Anthropology Volume 9 No 3, 297-322
Jones, A. 2002 Archaeological Theory and Scientific Practice Cambridge University Press
(information was initially obtained from his unpublished PhD thesis 1997. It was later published here.) 

Katz, S. and Maytag, F.  1991 Brewing an Ancient Beer Archaeology Volume 44 No 4, 24-33
Katz and Voigt 1986 Bread and Beer: the early use of cereals in the human diet Expedition Volume 25/2 23-34
Kretshmer, von H 1996 Brauen fruher und heute. In Biel 1996

Line, D. 1985 The Big Book of Brewing (14th edition) Argus Books, GW Kent Inc USA
Long et al 1999 Black Henbane in the Scottish Neolithic: a re-evaluation of palynological findings from Grooved Ware pottery at Balfarg Riding School and Henge, Fife. Journal of Archaeological Science Vol 26, 45-52
(published after my thesis completed but reference included in the 2004 BAR.)

Sherratt, A. 1991 Sacred and Profane Substances: the ritual use of narcotics in later neolithic Europe in Garwood et al Sacred and Profane, Proceedings of a conference on Archaeology, Ritual and Religion Oxford University Committee for Archaeology Monograph No 32, 51-64
Sherratt, A. 1995 Alcohol and its alternatives: symbol and substance in pre-industrial cultures in Goodman and Graham Consuming habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology. Routledge.
Sherratt, A. Flying up with the souls of the dead British Archaeology June, No 15, p14
Stike, H-P 1996 Traces of a possible Celtic brewery in Eberdingen-Hochdorf, Kreis Ludwigsburg, SW Germany. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany Volume 5, No 1-2, 57 -65

Vencl, S. 1994 The Archaeology of Thirst. Journal of European Archaeology 2.2, 299-326

Saturday 15 August 2020

origins of grain agriculture: some thoughts from a brewer

This is written by Graham Dineley, an all grain brewer for almost 40 years now. All ideas, opinions and mistakes are my own.

The widely accepted view of the first grain farmers of the Fertile Crescent is that they grew the grain to grind into flour to make bread. Grain was a staple crop that would see them through famine and hard times. Being a brewer I have a different perspective on grain. When I look at a field of grain I see the potential for malting and brewing beer. When non brewers look at a field of grain they just see flour and bread.

The homeland of the grains such as wheat, einkorn, barley etc. is Anatolia and the Levant. Deep in the last Ice Age, when Britain and northern Europe was under kilometres of a huge ice sheet, the people living in the Fertile Crescent were hunting, fishing and gathering wild seeds and plants. They lived in caves, for example, the Shanidar Cave.

Excavations by Ralph Solecki at Shanidar Cave, in the mountains of Kurdistan, revealed that it was inhabited for thousands of years from the Palaeolithic onwards. 
What were they doing with the grain? How did they discover malt? The earliest scientific evidence for malt in the Fertile Crescent dates to c13,000 years ago according to research by Professor Li Liu and her colleagues of Stanford University. Malting and making malt sugars from the grain is an ancient technology. 

Grain, when it is still green on the ear and not yet quite ripe is slightly sweet. Sweet enough to be attractive to eat. This is confirmed by our own bere crop. We have tasted the unripe green grain, it was sweet and grassy. Ripe grain is hard, difficult to chew and not sweet. If these people gathered the ripe grains and stored them, they may well have wetted them to soften them. This would start the germination and would again make them slightly sweet. They could easily have then dried these damp slightly sweetened grains in the sun for storage, if left undried the grain would spoil.

Now for the trick.

If they had started germinating them and there was period of heavy rain and no sun lasting for days, then I could imagine that they could take the grain into the cave and spread it out on the floor to dry. It would, of course, not dry but they may have continued turning the grains in an attempt to dry them, until the sun returned. An excellent tool for doing this would be a large scapula, maybe an ox's shoulder blade. This is essentially floor malting. It is the trick that is often overlooked by many archaeologists in the literature. Malt is usually described as sprouted grain, which it is not. In 2019 Merryn was invited to attend a workshop: Ancient Beer in Europe. It was organised by a number of archaeobotanists from around the world and an image of sprouted grain was used in the promotional material. See below. Merryn was unable to attend the meeting due to illness and so she was unable to present her paper on malt, malting and traditional techniques of making malt sugars. Her paper was read in her absence by one of the participants. She is in the process of writing it up.  

This image is of sprouted grain. It is not malt.

 This is brewers malt. Courtesy Wikimedia.

Any growth of the grain is from starch turned into sugars, which in turn is converted into cellulose. When grain has sprouted to the point of having green shoots, it has lost potential sugars. Malt is fully germinated grain with minimal growth. In all the literature that I have read, including that by maltsters, the turning and raking of the malt is to prevent the roots from tangling. I have seen unturned malt in the corners of a malting floor and it is indeed matted, with both roots and shoots, greenish in colour.

I think that the turning and raking of the malt confuses the geotropism of the shoots. The poor shoots are desperate to grow upwards, but never get chance to find out which way is up, so they don't grow. The grain continues to germinate for the next 3 to 5 days until complete conversion of the grain is achieved, normally with minimal sprouting. The shoots are less than the length of the grain.

Inside the grain alpha and beta amylase enzymes have been produced in the aleurone layer and just underneath there are erosion pits in the starchy endosperm. Merryn has some scanning electron microscope pictures which show this. They were taken for her research funding bids between 2000 and 2004. The grains were 6000 year old carbonised grain from the excavations of a large neolithic rectangular timber building at Balbridie, Scotland. There were thousands of grains and Professor Ian Ralston gave her six to examine. They were scarcely bigger than grape pips. More on this in a later blog.

The proteolytic enzymes that are also produced have degraded the protein matrix that binds the starch granules into a hard grain. Once properly converted and dried, gently, so as not to degrade the alpha and beta amylase enzymes, we have malt. This has completely different properties to unmalted grain. It is friable and easily crushed to release malt flour. No grinding is needed, just a flat stone and a pounder.

This turning and raking of the germinating grain is such a clever trick, like fire lighting, that once discovered it would never be forgotten. A perfect tool for manipulating the grain like this is a scapula. However, inhibiting sprouting fails at temperatures close to and above 20 degrees Centigrade in the malt bed. This is why traditional floor maltsters did not make malt when there is no R in the month name. An exception to this are the caves at Nottingham, England, which have a low constant temperature. Malt was made all year round in medieval times and earlier. A cave is an ideal place to make malt.

Interestingly a scapula was found in one of the large stone cisterns at the epi Palaeolithic site Gobekli Tepe. One was also found in the Bronze Age "food vessel" cist burial of a young woman at Achavanich, Scotland. The original interpretation of the residues in this beaker by Moffatt was one of a grain based beer, the earliest evidence for beer in Scotland. See our blogs on 'Beakers were for beer' parts one, two and three for more details. 

I think that sometime before 23,000 years ago the seed gatherers of the Fertile Crescent had cracked the trick of malting by turning the damp grain on the floors of caves with scapulas. They could then have made sweet malty biscuits. Merryn has done this on hot stones beside a fire. These "malt cakes" are sweet, tasty and attractive, far nicer than bread. She made some at a demonstration of "mashing in" techniques at the Eindhoven Open Air Archaeology Museum in 2009. They were quickly consumed by the visitors. 

A recent paper "Cooking in caves", shows that the people of the paleolithic would have had the sophisticated resources and technology to make malt, and sweet malt and pulse baked patties. See Figure 10D.

There is a site called Ohalo II on the shore of Lake Galilee where excavators found traces of starch granules on a large rock and fire blackened stones nearby. They interpreted this as bread making. As far as I know, they did not look for morphological changes in the starch granules consistent with malting like Professor Li Liu did at Raqefet cave.

Once the art of malting and making sweet biscuits on hot stones has been mastered, fermentation by serendipity only requires some sort of container and water. At Gobekli Tepe, an epi Palaeolithic site in Turkey, they found limestone cisterns cut from rock. When I first saw a photo of one of these cisterns in a journal article, it had a few rocks in the bottom. I emailed one of the excavators Jens Notroff and told him that I thought that this was a hot rock mash tun and they were making beer. I asked whether they had found any cisterns with small holes in or near the base. He replied that they had not, as yet.

I was wondering how these people could be lautering and sparging their mashes to obtain a wort. It was also a puzzle to me when we demonstrated a hot rock mash at the replica burnt mound trough on Bressay, Shetland. When I read Lars Marius Garshol's work and learned about kuurnas the problem was solved.

A kuurna, photo by M. Rasanen 1965, courtesy of Lars Marius Garshol

There is a burnt mound trough at Nant Farm, Porth Neigwl, Gwynedd, Wales, where they found piece of a sewn plank boat in the trough. This could be the remains of a kuurna. What better place to store one. A kuurna made from a log would leave no archaeological evidence, except when someone is buried in one and it is interpreted as a log coffin, as at the  Egtved burial.

By the time of Gobekli Tepe, people were gathering wild grains and processing them into malt and ale for their feasts. This was winter cereals, gathered in late spring and consumed in the summer.

Then came the Younger Dryas changing the climate to a cooler condition when these cereals would no longer grow in sufficient quantities for their purposes and cultivation of cereals began. Interestingly this was caused by the impact of  bolides in North America and Northern Europe. Professor Mike Baillie has proposed, over 20 years ago, an interesting theory that many climate changes have been caused by passing comets, bolide impacts and bolide air-bursts.

So the answer to the great 1953 "bread or beer" debate by Braidwood is neither. It was malt and malt sugars, as Merryn argues at the end of her Master's thesis. This was published as a BAR by invitation in 2004.

Further reading
These books have been very useful in our understanding of the science and practicalities of malt, malting and wort production. Rather expensive to buy but they should be available through inter library loan and are to be found in many University libraries.

Bewley, J.D. and Black,M. 1985 Seeds: Physiology of Development and Germination. Pub Plenum Press
Second Edition 1994 see in particular Chapter 8

Briggs, D. E. 1998 Malts and Malting. Pub Springer

Briggs, D.E., Stevens, R. and Young, T. W. 1981 Malting and Brewing Science Volume 1: Malt and sweet wort. Pub Institute of Brewing.

Stopes, H. 1885 Malt and Malting: An Historical, Scientific and Practical Treatise Pub Lyon
This has been scanned in by the University of Oxford library. It is available to read online here:

Sunday 9 August 2020

The land of milk and honey

"O, while you live, tell the truth and shame the devil!"

(Henry IV, Part I Act 3 Scene 1)

This Blog is written by Graham Dineley, and the opinions, ideas and mistakes are entirely my own.

The land flowing with milk and honey is a Biblical phrase used to describe a fertile land.

ארץ זבת חלב ודבש (éretz zavát ẖaláv udvásh)

As I understand this, it is better translated as "The land gushing with goats milk and 'debash'". Debash is not bee's honey but some sort of synthetic sweetness derived from something that grows. It seems to baffle the Biblical scholars. The origin of the word is lost. It is normally interpreted as being made from dates, figs, or even grape juice, for these are the only sources of sweetness that grows that these scholars know of. The term "synthetic sweetness", suggests that thing that is growing is not sweet in itself, but can be processed into sweetness. Liquid malt sugars are a perfect candidate for Debash.



Fertile Crescent. courtesy of wikimedia commons

It is easy to make the assumption that grain processing practises in the Fertile Crescent, the origins of grain agriculture, continue as they always have done. However to do so is to overlook the rise of the Moslem culture in this area. Alcohol production is prohibited under Moslem law. The current indigenous cereal drink, Boza, has a very low alcohol level, around 1%, at which level it is very difficult to get drunk. As a consequence the arts of malting and "mashing in" to make wort is no longer commonplace there.

I propose that "debash" is actually wort. Then that Biblical phrase "land of milk and honey" makes more sense. It is a metaphor for a land fertile for both grazing animals and cereal crops. It tells me that the first farmers of the ancient near east were making malt. They kept caprovids (sheepy goaty things) and grew their cereals primarily to make into malt sugars. This would be about 10,000 years ago when most of Britain and Northern Europe were under ice sheets.

On reconsideration "debash" is more likely to be concentrated wort, much like bee's honey is concentrated flower nectar. There is a modern equivalent of concentrated wort: malt extract. This is a Victorian invention first made by Nestle, when they were experimenting with baby foods in the 19th century. Malt extract is evaporated under a vacuum at a low temperature. This preserves the amylolytic enzymes which convert starches into sugars. If you want to know what "debash" would have tasted like, all you have to do is purchase a jar of malt extract from a whole food shop, or pharmacist. A word of warning, do not get one with added cod liver oil!

At the bottom of Potter's label is the caption "One of Nature's natural sweeteners"

When I talk to people about malt extract, I still find some people confuse malt extract with yeast extract. Both are brown and sticky, but malt extract is sweet like honey and yeast extract is extremely salty. 

Older people might remember their mothers giving them spoonfuls of malt extract when they were children, for the vitamins.

On the left malt extract, on the right yeast extract.

The absence of wort in this middle eastern culture has more consequences than just baffling the scholars. It also baffles the archaeologists, for they know nothing of malting or "mashing in", it is not part of their experience, but as a brewer it is part of mine.

The two pioneering archaeobotanists who first researched cereal processing, Gordon Hillman and Jack Harlan, both did their field work in Moslem countries, so they never saw or experienced the production of malt, "mashing in" and wort production. This is why it has been overlooked by the archaeological comm
unity and is such a mystery to them. As far as I can tell Gordon Hillman(1984) also introduced the concept of "parching the grain" into Archaeology. This is a particularly Arabic practise for nearly ripe grain, and was and is not practised in European agriculture. "Parching the grain" would kill seed corn and also prevent germination for malting.

As I have said in the oven mashing blog: when Merryn first started her research into prehistoric brewing, 25 years ago, she amassed all the scholarly literature she could find on the subject. At that point I had nearly 15 years experience of making beer from the grain. Sufficient successes and failures to have a good idea of what works and what does not.

I found the archaeological literature to be confused and confusing, often contradictory and sometimes downright wrong. It was useless. It had all been written by people who had never made a beer from the grain, and their sources were also from people who had never done it. Being scholarly meant that the scholars and archaeologists believed it, and they still do.

The only archaeologists that I know of, out of more than a handful, that have tried to make a prehistoric beer and succeeded are the Moore Group. They came to Orkney to see us in 2005, and to learn how to make beer. All the other attempters have said that they did not need our advice, for they already had a brewer. They mistook fermenting malt extract with brewing, and all their brews have failed, often spectacularly, because they believed the literature. They seem to think that brewing was somehow different in prehistory, and that it has been steadily refined into the modern product.

The Moore Group archaeologists tasted our wort and said "God, that's sweet. That is nice!". At all of our demonstrations no other archaeologists would ever taste the wort. 

Merryn gave her first paper about malt and ale in the Neolithic in 1998 at the Neolithic Studies Group annual meeting held at the Royal Society in London. We took samples of crushed malt, wort and ale. No one wanted to taste the wort or the ale. During her presentation there was some heckling from a red faced drunken archaeologist at the back. He kept shouting "But the pots aren't big enough!" The last speaker was allowed to run 15 minutes over time so that there was no time for questions. I think this is called filibustering. Here's a review of the papers presented at this meeting. It seems that this reviewer thought that only big breweries can make beer and that it's not possible to brew on a domestic scale as I do. Merryn did not say that Skara Brae was a brewery, only that they had the necessary material culture and facilities to make malt and ale. Merryn did not say that rectangular timber buildings were breweries, only that they were suitable as grain stores and malt barns. It seems to me that when Merryn said malt and ale, they heard brewing and can only imagine huge modern breweries.

At the Neolithic Fair at Skaill House, Orkney, in 1999 we had a table set up like a market stall, with samples of malt, wort and ale. When offered a taste the archaeologists all backed away and said "No thanks!" The fair was part of the Neolithic Orkney conference. We were not accepted to present a paper, however, we were allowed to contribute to chapter 16 of the McDonald Institute Monograph about the conference and the associated fair.

In 2009 we gave a demonstration of Viking style hot rock mashing at the ancient technology event organised by the Orkney Archaeology Society in Harray. Only two Orkney archaeologists turned up. They backed away, looking horrified, and said "No thanks, we've got to go now" when we offered them a taste of the sweet mash. Their loss. We also gave demonstrations of mashing at Skara Brae for Historic Scotland in the reconstructed Hut 7 for four years, between 2008 and 2012. We actually got paid for these. Tourists and visitors were fascinated by the aroma and the taste of the mash. Sadly no archaeologists ever came to see our demonstrations or wanted to talk to us about our work.

When Merryn studied to be an Orkney tour guide, part of the training was at Skara Brae. She was told that "some woman says that they were brewing beer at Skara Brae, but the College has pooh poohed it". We are treated as "nutters" and are made fun of by the Orkney College archaeologists, even though they were the first to hear of our work. At our last visit to the Ness of Brodgar excavations, 2019, Merryn was trying to talk to a professor and I saw some passing archaeologist performing a "monkey dance" behind her back. Again their loss.

So how, when and where did this malting and making sugars happen? This is discussed in the next blog.